“These shoestring-budget shot-on-video works already demonstrate Atanes’ characteristic gifts for composition and staging combined with a knack for finding bleakly evocative locations that reinforce his themes of power, oppression, exile or, entrapment and the dream of alternate realities where freedom might be possible.”
The films of Carlos Atanes — Codex Atanicus, FAQ, PROXIMA, and Maximum Shame, feature outsider characters who dream of or find themselves stranded in alternate universes. Like his fictional creations, Atanes is also an outsider — outside the established Spanish film industry and, so far, outside American distribution.
Atanes arrived on the scene in the 1990s with several surreal, underground short films, including Metaminds and Metabodies, Morfing and the corrosive Welcome to Spain. Original, bizarre, provocative, they reveal many of Atanes’ principal influences, including surrealist progenitors such as Bunuel, Arrabal, and Jean Cocteau as well as Greenaway, Lynch, Cronenberg, Ionesco, Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick, and Boris Vian, among others. These shoestring-budget shot-on-video works already demonstrate Atanes’ characteristic gifts for composition and staging combined with a knack for finding bleakly evocative locations that reinforce his themes of power, oppression, exile or, entrapment and the dream of alternate realities where freedom might be possible.
Despite convincing several prominent Spanish directors to make cameos in Morfing, Atanes remains outside the Spanish film industry, where he has found no financial or institutional support from an industry with no tradition of independent filmmaking. Though some state subsidies are available, Atanes found the requirements of obtaining it too onerous and so felt he had no choice but to self-finance his work. For features such as FAQ, PROXIMA and Maximum Shame he has had to spread out a range of one to four actual weeks of shooting over several months or even a year. Yet, despite extremely low budgets, Atanes’ shot-on-video features transcend their economic limitations and look and sound like the work of a far better-funded filmmaker. Visually, his dystopian science fiction film FAQ is distinguished by a canny choice of present-day urban locations, not particularly futuristic but suggestive of a distressed future and stunningly beautiful desert landscapes.
Atanes struggles to get his films made and then, because there is no interest by Spanish distributors or Spanish festivals or the majority of Spanish reviewers, he is compelled to heavily work the world festival circuit to get his films seen and to pick up some scattered distribution. Though his films have received numerous positive reviews from American websites that specialize in underground and horror films, his work has as yet received only a limited and highly problematic arrangement with a sub-distributor for one film (FAQ) and distribution via online download on Amazon.com (PROXIMA).
Atanes’ first foray into feature filmmaking was to be a science fiction film, FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), produced in 2004. In this film the agent of oppression is a feminist government called metacontrol, which mandates a form of absolute political correctness, including no physical contact between the sexes. There is a constant stream of admonitions voiced over loudspeakers reminding men of proper behavior toward women. Inhabiting this world is Nono (played by musician Xavier Tort); mute and highly attuned to his environment, he appears to neither actively resist nor accept the system but to operate according to his own rules within it. In contrast, the members of a male political underground who produce porn videos in which no actual sex occurs actively oppose metacontrol and end up being subjected to a bizarre form of punishment meted out by this totalitarian matriarchy.
The other lead character, Angeline (Anne-Celine Auche), is a young woman scheduled to surrender her reproductive functions to metacontrol and become a cog in their power structure, but she is clearly ambivalent. During the sequences of the film where she is central, she renders her thoughts and observations in voice-over, creating a counterpoint to Nono’s silence. She decides to take him with her on a trek into the wilderness. Ultimately they venture into a vivid desert wasteland. But any thought of resistance or escape is quashed immediately, and order and control are again imposed. The ending suggests that only in the space outside of reality, the place of fantasy, is any kind of escape from the oppressive system possible. FAQ is noteworthy for its striking visuals — Atanes’ camera placement and framing are always evocative — and for his characteristically brilliant use of locations, which are not explicitly futuristic yet succeed in creating the sense of degraded, alienating near-future.
In 2007, Atanes produced PROXIMA, his most ambitious project, at least in terms of budget and shooting schedule. PROXIMA is ostensibly a parallel planet described by a science fiction writer who claims to have invented a means whereby people can transport themselves there mentally by following the instructions on tapes he has devised. The writer announces this at an SF convention and is immediately dismissed as a crank. Tony (Oriol Auberts) isn’t so sure. An ordinary man with a failing video store devoted to SF movies and a strained relationship with his girlfriend, Natalia (Karen Owens), who berates him as an immature dreamer, Tony is looking for a way out. Under the pressure of failure and disappointment he begins to experiment with the mental travelling technique and for a brief period experiences an ambiguous journey to what appears to be another dimension. After this initial “trip,” he drives out to a rendezvous with a kind of guru called The Messenger (Anthony Blake) and a group of like-minded people joining together to support their mutual desire to reach this other world. The film plays off the intrigue of whether there is a true alternate universe or the hero and his tribe are simply delusional. After a bizarre encounter with this group in a remote and squalid location, they are attacked by a group of armed men. Tony is sedated and wakes up tied to a bed. His ex has had him taken to a deprogrammer. After attempting to bring him back to reality, she turns him over to a brutal deprogrammer. After roughing Tony up and apparently sedating him again, the deprogrammer leaves the room. Suddenly Tony revives and succeeds at tearing the bed frame apart before rushing to a nearby cassette player to insert the instructional tape. This time he travels through space, replete with digital spacecraft, and arrives at a vividly realized alternate world where he befriends a group of fellow travelers. For a while it seems that maybe the other planet was real after all. But after the other colonists leave and he is alone on the world, a beautiful space princess takes him into her ship and informs him that she has chosen him because of his capacity for fantasy. The entire final act of the film, it’s suggested, may be nothing more than one man’s wish-fulfilling fantasy.
In 2008, Atanes briefly returned to his roots in surrealistic short films with Scream Queen, a bizarre miniature about a journalist who must undergo a terrible ordeal in his quest to interview a famous horror actress. Scream Queen can currently be seen on youtube and other online venues.
In 2010, Atanes directed Maximum Shame, a film currently popping up intermittently on the U.S. underground film festival circuit in hopes of finding a distributor. With Maximum Shame Atanes combines all the elements of his previous work: the underground surrealist aesthetic of the early shorts with the SF aspects of his two earlier features. The film begins with a woman (Ana Mayo) giving a disquisition on the staggering number of variations possible in the game of chess before moving on to a consideration of the number of possible alternate universes that may exist in reality according to modern physics. After she finally retires, her distressed husband (Paco Moreno) gets out of bed and foretells the arrival of a catastrophe in the form of a black hole into which the world will be plunged and most likely destroyed that very night. After pronouncing this grim prophecy and staring at the night sky in anticipation, he crawls in terror under the bed, disappearing into that dark space. In the blink of an eye he finds himself in the alternate universe that remains after the disaster. He falls into a squalid, deserted warehouse presided over by the Queen (all the characters are named after chess pieces) on roller skates, played with relish by Marina Gatell, who trusses up her subjects in bondage gear and denies them the ability to speak or eat while she rants at length.
Wandering in this strange new environment, the husband, the Rook, encounters the Queen, who immediately assumes a position of dominance over him. After allowing him to suckle at her breast, she has him impaled through the throat with a spear by a mute, idiot character, the Pawn. His wife, the Bishop, wanders through the warehouse in search of her lost husband. For the time being the Rook is removed from the “game.”
The Queen has under her control one primary captive, an attractive woman (Ariadna Ferrer) with a fetish apparatus on her face that prevents her from eating (implicitly she is the King, though never named as such). The Queen’s domination of her prisoner appears to be part of an overall attempt to prevent the realization of some kind of prophecy, which entails the loss of her power and a reversal of the power dynamic. Throughout the film there is a subtle parallel with Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s great play of the Spanish classical period Life Is a Dream. In this play a king receives a prophecy via horoscope that his son will grow up to destroy the country and has the boy imprisoned in a tower. After briefly releasing him only to have the prince go on a rampage, the son is drugged and returned to the tower, persuaded that the events of the day before were a dream. Ultimately, rebel forces free the prince and he defeats his father in combat, taking his place. In the film, an oracle appears in a gilded mirror (Eleanor James) and, in a messy scene involving gobs of pasta and the hungry king kneeling on the floor, foretells and appears to abet the reversal that brings about the end of the Queen’s reign.
Despite the film’s eschewal of any conventional causality, one earlier sequence seems to lead decisively to this reversal and involves yet another dream. After the Bishop, searching the warehouse for the Rook, is knocked unconscious by the Queen’s pawn, she dreams of an encounter with another character, the Knight (Ignasi Vidal). The Knight suggests that he is an angel. He carries illustrations and calculations for the construction of a “transverberation” machine designed to bring about extreme or ecstatic states. Mystical or sexual transport, violence or death, or some combination thereof, they are all forms of violent rupture of things as they are, possible transcendence or escape, an opening to another dimension or order of being (including perhaps union with God). Transverberation derives from a particular brand of Spanish Catholic mysticism, especially that of Saint Teresa de Avila. The spear that impales the Rook at the beginning of the film and that will impale him and the Bishop as they embrace in reunion is the spear that pierces the heart of the mystic whose quotidian reality is shattered by union with the divine.
Ultimately the Bishop’s dream yields a decisive moment when she finds herself imprisoned in cardboard box next to the Knight, who is imprisoned in a box of his own. Here, during one of the film’s two surprisingly compelling musical numbers, she is able to provide him with a crucial lost number sequence that appears to influence the oracle’s actions that lead in turn to the Queen’s downfall.
Yet after this apparent victory, the same spear that impaled her husband at the beginning pierces the Bishop and the Rook as they embrace in reunion. And since the only apparent consequence of the Queen’s defeat is to shift one player to the position of tyrant with all others still subordinate, it is debatable how meaningful this victory really is.
Even more than Calderon de la Barca’s play, Maximum Shame is permeated by dreamlike indeterminacy. Its plot cannot be reduced to a simple log line. Like David Lynch’s Lost Highway or even Last Year at Marienbad, it is open to multiple interpretations. It defies any easy genre categorization as well, perhaps explaining the difficulty the film has had in finding distribution.
In Maximum Shame, Atanes presents what is perhaps the definitive delineation of his themes of power and oppression. But here the consolatory power of dreams or fantasies seems in question since the entire alternate world is itself essentially oneiric if not literally a dream — or more accurately a nightmare permeated with the dynamics of domination, dread, and subjugation. This alternate universe is a trap, a suffocating enclosed world where every variation in the “game” ultimately leads to the same result. Whatever the actual rules of this mysterious chess match (and it is hard to tell), it always ends in oppressors and the oppressed, winners or losers: there is no escaping the nature of the game itself. The nightmare warehouse, a locus of radical isolation and constraint, is a totalized system in the mode of the extreme utopias or dystopias of discourse delineated by Roland Barthes in his book Fourier/Sade/Loyola (Atanes cites Barthes as an influence). The warehouse of Maximum Shame is a very particular closed universe, a freakshow wonderland that Ana Mayo’s Alice ventures into. But it is also and more disturbingly a distilled mirror version of the real universe we all occupy right now.
In the wake of Maximum Shame Atanes turned his attention back to a long-held dream project, a biopic of Aleister Crowley. Crowley, with his practice of magick involving sex and power and ritual placing him at odds with established values and society, is a natural subject for Atanes. A previous attempt had resulted in the forty-minute Perdurabo. This most recent attempt quickly ran aground due to lack of financing, and Atanes has been forced to shelve it for the time being.
Yet Atanes’s determination may soon allow him to produce another and perhaps more ambitious feature-length project, one that perhaps will finally make the work of this singular and neglected contemporary director available to a wide audience.
Note: The primary sources for information on Carlos Atanes and his films are various websites devoted to underground or science fiction film such as Bad Lit: The Journal of Underground Film; Extraordinary Video and Movie Guide (interview); Cinetrange (interview); Atanes’ own website; and personal communication between the director and me.